Report: Steelers, star are millions apart on deal

PITTSBURGH — Le’Veon Bell has an unconventional running style. He’s equally quirky when it comes to contract negotiations.

The Steelers made it official on Tuesday when they again designated Bell as their franchise player. They retain the rights to keep him for $14.5 million, should they decide to do so.

But is that decision as automatic as it was last season?

Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported the team and Bell are millions of dollars apart on a possible long-term contract. The Steelers had expressed optimism they could get a multi-year deal done.

There’s still time. They can negotiate until July 16. Bell told ESPN he will not play under the franchise tag, as he did last season.

With the money currently committed — but not yet guaranteed — to Bell, the Steelers are over the salary cap by nearly $10 million.

That means they can’t sign other free agents. Given the state of their defense and the absence of linebacker Ryan Shazier for at least the 2018 season, this would be a good time to look for some outside help.

They could take that franchise tag off Bell and regain the cap space, but would they?

The Steelers have given every indication they want to keep Bell. He’s a big part of their offense. The Steelers have to decide if he’s an indispensable part.

Other teams, notably New England, have gone with a committee system at running back and succeeded. The Steelers don’t have a lot of depth at running back.

Pitt’s James Conner came in last season, but only carried the ball 32 times before a knee injury ended his season. Veteran Stevan Ridley was signed after Conner was injured.

They could draft a running back, and they could shop for free agents or trades. But with the money allocated for Bell, they can’t acquire anyone right now.

If this is a stalemate, and Bell is true to his word about not playing under the franchise designation, are the Steelers forced to cut ties with him and go to Plan B?

And how can they get help for a defense that sagged badly at the end of last season?

Headaches are now a year-round condition for NFL teams.

Who’s next?

One of the underplayed stories of spring training (so far) is what the Pirates plan to do at shortstop.

This year is easy. The job belongs to Jordy Mercer. He took over for Clint Barmes in 2014 and has turned in steady but not spectacular work.

Mercer is eligible for free agency at the end of this season. He turns 32 in August, so he’s not a candidate for a new contract, especially since his range seemed to slip a bit last season.

The Pirates have Kevin Newman, their No. 1 draft pick from 2015, at Class AAA. He would need a big year in the minors to seriously compete for a major league job next spring.

The Pirates could wind up trading a veteran for a major league-ready shortstop to cover the gap next season.

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